Toronto's answer to Obama

SHARON LEM, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:24 PM ET

TORONTO - Barack Obama made headlines worldwide when he was elected the first black American president, but Toronto also holds a significant place in history when it comes to breaking racial barriers.

As Torontonians mark Black History Month, it's worth remembering that more than 100 years ago, the city had an acting mayor of African descent -- long before other cities in North America or Europe.

William Peyton Hubbard was Toronto's first black alderman when he was elected in 1894. He served on city council as alderman, a controller and deputy mayor for 16 years -- an incredible feat given the racial barriers he had to overcome at the time.

Martin Luther King Jr. had yet to arrive on the scene, and it would be more than 50 years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger and sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala.

"Similar to Obama, he was articulate, he was a go-getter and he wasn't afraid to buck the system. He was innovative and creative in the way he achieved his accomplishments," said Catherine Slaney, a distant relative of Hubbard's and author of the book Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line.

"Hubbard got it right, long before a lot of other people. He certainly pioneered this kind of initiative and he was essentially a real proponent for social justice and he transcended race," Slaney said.

Slaney's great-grandfather was Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first Canadian of African descent to graduate from medical school in Canada in 1861. Slaney said Abbott attended the death bed of Abraham Lincoln as his doctor and as a friend. Abbott's daughter, Grace, married Hubbard's son, Frederick L. Hubbard.

In the early 1780s, historical documents show the first slaves arrived in Upper Canada with the United Empire Loyalists after the American Revolution. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1834. Thanks to the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society's abolitionist movement, Canada was a safe haven for slaves until the U.S. abolished slavery in 1865. If American slaves made it to Canada, they automatically became free.

Slaney said Hubbard's parents were former slaves in Richmond, Virginia, and in 1840, they arrived in Toronto with 50 families from the U.S. via the Underground Railway. The Hubbard family lived in an area near Bloor St. W. and Brunswick Ave. in Toronto's Annex. On Jan. 27, 1842, William Peyton Hubbard was born.

Slaney said when Hubbard was 12 years old, he worked for a Colonel Wells and stayed with the Wells' for five years. Hubbard was sent to Model School and paid for his schooling and books by working for the Wells'. After graduation, Hubbard was a baker for 17 years and also worked in the livery stable business.

In the mid-1860s, Hubbard became a hero when he diverted a horse and carriage from falling into the Don River's icy river bank. George Brown -- politician and founder of The Globe and Mail -- was one of the passengers and, from that day forward, he took on Hubbard as one of his drivers and a long friendship began.

Brown talked Hubbard into entering politics and, in 1894, Hubbard was elected Toronto's first black alderman.

Hubbard married Julia Luckett, a school teacher from Washington, and they had three children -- daughter Margaret and sons Wilson and Frederick, who later became a Toronto commissioner and first chair of the Toronto Transit Commission.

According to Daniel G. Hill's book The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, the 1846-47 Toronto Directory named 81 blacks employed as businessmen, labourers and tradesmen.

Hill wrote that Hubbard fought for public interest causes which weren't popular with his mostly well-to-do white constituents. Hubbard lobbied to keep public ownership of Toronto's water supply and he helped Adam Beck to develop Toronto's publicly owned hydro-electric power. Hubbard fought also to stop street attacks on Jews and he slowed the implementation of excessive municipal licence fees on small Chinese laundries, when mainstream laundry owners wanted to force them out of business.

"I have always felt that I am the representative of a race, hitherto despised, but if given a fair opportunity, would be able to command the esteem and respect of my fellow citizens; that opportunity has been given to me," Hubbard wrote in a letter .

While the family legacy doesn't have a strong presence in Toronto today, direct descendants of Hubbard still have ties in Ontario. Hubbard's great-grandson John Langdon Hubbard, now resides in Sunderland, Ontario. His great-granddaughter, Lorraine, lives in British Columbia.

"My great-grandfather was quite an orator and had an incredible ability to speak," Lorraine said. "They nick-named him the 'Cicero of Council.' His verbal skills played a significant role on his ability to persuade people to vote for him, since there were few black families living in his ward. He was essentially elected by white constituents.

"I remember my father and aunt would talk about the speeches my great-grandfather gave at birthdays, Christmas and family gatherings. He had a habit of getting up to make a speech for every occasion. My father and aunt were just kids and all they could remember was grand-dad was talking and talking when they wanted to get up from the table to play."

It's been reported that on every birthday from the time he turned 70, Hubbard baked his own birthday cake and brewed his own wine. He died of a stroke at the age of 93 on April 30, 1935.

"It's funny, growing up with someone in your family like that all your life, you don't necessarily take him for granted, but it's just a normal part of my family history. We know what he did, but sometimes you don't recognize the impact that information and knowledge can represent for other people," Lorraine said.

For Canadians, William Peyton Hubbard was a trail blazing pioneer.


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